From the air it’s easy to see that Santiago, Chile, is booming. Construction cranes appear like so many storks delivering the latest crop of skyscrapers. Latin America’s tallest building, the Gran Torre Santiago, soars to nearly 1,000 feet, its massive bulk reminiscent of a huge rocket ready for liftoff.
Yet beginning 10 or so miles south of the heart of this metropolis of 6 million lies another world. The towering front of the Andes rises abruptly to the east, and from the mountains flows the gravel-choked Maipo River. Just above its banks is the historic headquarters of Chile’s largest winery, Viña Concha y Toro, whose neighbors include some of the nation’s leading producers.
It makes for a startling juxtaposition, with verdant vineyards and beautiful wine estates amid the southern reaches of Santiago’s sprawl. A recent extension of the Santiago Metro is almost within walking distance of two of Chile’s greatest red wine vineyards: Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s crown jewel, and Viña Almaviva. Both sites are located in the Puente Alto district of the Maipo appellation.
“This place is a very classic vineyard in the Maipo,” says Isabel Guilisasti, Concha y Toro’s marketing manager, whose family is a major shareholder in the publicly traded company. Founded in 1883, Concha y Toro had worldwide sales of $928 million in 2012 and owns more than 22,500 acres of vineyards in Chile. “It is a very classic terroir,” she adds.
This is no idle boast. Chile’s best red wines, whether based on Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah or the country’s distinctive Carmenère grape, are now worthy competitors on the world stage. It’s a staggering accomplishment given that a mere two decades ago, Chile was still known chiefly as a source of inexpensive bulk wines and serviceable fighting varietals.
According to the trade organization Wines of Chile, there are more than 250 wineries today, up from only a dozen or so in 1995, and Chile ranks as the seventh-largest producer of wine in the world. It’s the fourth-leading exporter of wine to the United States, with shipments totaling nearly $240 million worth of wine in 2013 (more than 6.5 million cases). With a small domestic market, exports are critical: Chile sends about 70 percent of its wines overseas, more than $1.2 billion worth.
The Don Melchor bottling, which has been made since 1987, ranks as one of Chile’s flagship reds. The 2010 ($125 a bottle) scores a classic 95 points on Wine Spectator‘s 100-point scale. Made from 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Cabernet Franc, this refined wine offers polished tannins and concentrated red fruit and spice flavors.
Part of what makes the terroir of Puente Alto special are rocky deposits left by the ancient Maipo that have washed down over the millennia from the Andes, stacked layer by layer in a mix of clay and sand. This is the geology of Don Melchor and its neighbor Almaviva, as well as by many other top Chilean reds.
There’s no mistaking that the Don Melchor is a product of place; its sinewy, savory essence and appealing notes of underbrush are distinctive among the world’s top Cabernets.
Its high price too put it in a league of its own, joined by a handful of others: Almaviva, Viña Santa Rita Casa Real, Viña Montes Alpha M, Viñedo Chadwick and Lapostolle Clos Apalta, this last a Carmenère blend whose 2005 bottling was Wine Spectator‘s Wine of the Year in 2008. These wines all sell for $85 or higher.
Yet there is an exciting new generation of well-priced wines waiting to be discovered, propelled by vibrant Sauvignon Blancs, crystalline Chardonnays and fresh, juicy Pinot Noirs, mostly from cool, coastal appellations. Meaty Syrahs and Zinfandel-like Carignans hold out potential as well. Even Malbec, which has rocketed to success in neighboring Argentina, is rising in quality. And in the high Andes, Grenache-based blends may gain a foothold.
These Chilean newcomers are fruit-driven and pure-tasting, with noticeably less oak influence than has been the country’s norm. They are being made not only by a younger generation of homegrown, hardworking winemakers, but also by forward-thinking old-line companies and ambitious foreign investors, all of whom share a striking commitment to organic grapegrowing practices. This amounts to a fascinating metamorphosis. Where once industrial winemaking and grapegrowing held sway, there’s now an unabashed pride in the natural gifts of the land. It’s all helping to reenergize—and redefine—this winemaking dynamo.